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The Humiliation of Anglicanism - by Ephraim Radner

What Are We To Do? The Humiliation of Anglicanism

Ephraim Radner

A talk given at the Anglican Communion Institute Conference in Charleston, SC, 8-10 January 2004

What are we to do? What are we to do when leaders of our church teach error and drive the flock astray? What are we do to when the Communion of the Church, when the teaching Scriptures and the witness of the Saints – all inestimable gifts of God -- are alienated from our midst by neglect and open contempt? What are we to do when congregations of the “little ones” are thrown into turmoil by such error and by such driving and alienation, when hopes are starved and faith grows cold?

Let me lay out one way to answer this question, apprehended through a particular historical lens. It is a way that stands in contrast to what I would guess is our most natural posture of response. This more natural posture is one from which we view our church – Episcopal or Anglican – and, in the face of the threats or deformations our church experiences, and from which we seek to protect, revive, recreate the particular virtues and goods we cherish in it. Our most natural way of responding to our church’s woes is familial, parental, exceptional: it is our church, I am defined by it, I am beholden to its bloodline and its patrimony, I am the mother, she the cub. And the responses we shall give, from this natural posture of exceptional regard and concern, will vary on the basis of how we define the exceptional itself. The answer to “what are we to do?” will depend on our careful, detailed, and exceptional definitions of “what is Anglicanism?”. Most of us, including myself, have been engaged in this almost Mormon fascination with genealogy as the vessel of redemption for a long time. Too long, I think.

The lens I suggest using is that through which we see ourselves first and foremost as objects of a divine will, not as willful creatures seeking the divine: What are to do? Or what is God doing? The first question has no meaning outside an answer to the second. For those who gaze at the Church, whose memories and hopes are ones that are still filled with a sense of wonder at the gifts, exceptional or not, that were given us, who say to our Lord, “look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!”, to these the Lord replies, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down” (Mark 13:1f.). This is what we see: the strange work of God, who creates good and evil (Is. 45;7), and whose call to servanthood includes, nay ushers in, the “plucking up and breaking down” even as it does the “planting and building” (cf. Jer. 1:10). So that the Potter speaks aloud, proclaims to His beloved, “O house of Israel, can I not do with you such breaking down and plucking up that all might turn from and amend their ways and their doings? That I might again build up and plant?” (Jer. 18:6-11).

That is, might tear down for the sake of exaltation. For what God does is seen before the world: a lifting up through the humiliation that lies at the heart of His mission in the world, the humbling for the sake of sin’s destruction (Co. 2:14), and for the sake of rising up before the doubled knee and praising tongue of every creature “in heaven, on earth, and under the earth” (Phil. 2:5-11). “The Lord alone will be exalted in that day, and the pride of men brought low” (Isaiah 2:17).

Is this not Him in whom we are baptized? Him “in whose humiliation justice was denied”, and into whose “death” we are led by Ethiopians and their mutilated questions and desires (cf. Isaiah53:7f,. and Acts 8:30-38)? He calls: “whoever exalts himself will be humbled; whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12), and the Church has long enshrined this vocation as the prophecy of her own life (cf. James 4:10; 1 Pet. 5:6). So that when she “sees” that “He has humbled her”, she might find life in His Word (cf. Deut. 8:3).

“Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down… And when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be, then… ” (Mark 13:2, 14). Then flee, or then perhaps stay put, then look around (vv. 15ff.). “When you see these things taking place, then know that He is near, at the very gates” (v. 29). When “they have roared into the midst of the Holy Place… hacking with axes, breaking down with hatchets and hammers, setting sanctuary on fire and desecrating the dwelling place of His Name”, when we cry out that “we do not see signs, that there is no longer any prophet left” (Psalm 74, 4ff.), when “no stone is left upon another”, when we in fact see such things that veil our eyes, then…

This was Newman’s insistence, in his Sermons on the Anti-Christ for Advent 1838 (later reprinted as Tract 83 of the Tracts for the Times), that is, that we must see these things, that they are to be seen in our very unseeing, that they are ever to be seen because even now “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (2 Thess. 2:7), even now the Lamb is slain before the world’s foundation (Rev. 13:8), “in agony until the end of the world” (Pascal, fragment 919), even now the “desolating sacrilege” is set up, even now we must be seeing the “now” of the Church’s humiliation, the perpetuity of the Church’s end, because…: “He has torn that he may heal us; he has stricken, and he will bind us up; and after two days he will revive us, and on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him” (Hosea 6:1f.); because “He answered them ‘destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’” (John 2:19); because the “temple is His body” (v. 21).

This is what we see God doing: the humiliation of the exalted, for the resurrection of the debased. And we have seen it before, with those many, like Tertullian, whose lives beheld the building up of the Church through her tearing down, with those like de Maistre, who recognized the terror of the world’s assault upon the Church as the field of her planting.

The lens I offer is simply that of the grand, the wonderful, the inevitable and holy work of God’s humiliation of our hearts and flesh, that we might live with Him in Christ Jesus, we, who happen to be Episcopalians and Anglicans. It is not Anglicanism per se, it is not Episcopalianism, it is not my version of Law and Gospel or Justification by Faith as given in Luther or the Via Media or the catholic episcopacy of the primitive church that matters, not that is in their exceptional role in this drama. It is rather the drama, the promise, the work of God itself that matters and defines: humbled, to be exalted in Jesus Christ. And the question of the moment, this moment, becomes, “what shall we do with that?”. You see the difference: this we answer “as Episcopalians” – our humbling defines our church; it is not our church that defines our humbling.

With respect to “Anglicanism” or “Anglican churches”, the point is first to frame our vision from the act of God, and not upon the basis of our own intrinsic character, unless that character itself is understood as that of need and turning and of trust. The only “theology” here that matters is one that articulates such awareness; the only ecclesial attitudes those that mark such conversion; the only people indicated those who see and know. Anglicanism, not as an exception, but only the figure – one among many -- of God’s act, is something we shall note below. But as for “knowing” and “doing” in the place of such humiliation, there is given us not a strategy, but only a going-forward through its midst. As all men must do. This is what the lens of God’s humbling reveals: not a plan of action, but only a going forward, straight-ahead.

Hear what Jesus says to those who “go forward” into God’s act: “Do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given to you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mk.13:11). There is no “beforehand” here, only the “testimony” (v.9), only the “watching” (v. 37), only the wakefulness without sleep (Pascal), only being “delivered” and being “taken” (v. 9), only going straight-ahead until the end, only “enduring” (v. 13). The form of the humiliated church’s witness is overtly explicated in the Pastorals, where “testimony” to the Lord and the “sharing in the Gospel’s suffering” represents the “good confession” (c. 2 Tim. 1:8; 1 Tim. 611ff.).

Humiliation without exception – the pride of all men brought low – is articulated and pursued with such “straight-ahead theology”, where openness and candor, where plainness and consistency, where neither looking to the right nor the left distracts direction, where being somewhere becomes the place of witness wherever that may be – fleeing or staying, captivity or sword, each becomes the frame of perseverance, however it is given (Mk, 13:15ff.; Rev. 13:10). “And the multitudes asked [John], ‘What then shall we do?’. And he answered them ‘He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise’” (Luke 3:10f.). What are we to do?

The miracle of humiliation: two figures

If Paul’s practical response to the Church’s humiliation – “they all turned away from me!… therefore be strong in the grace entrusted and share in suffering” (2 Tim 1:15-2:3) – does not follow a coherent structural strategy, we cannot expect the Church’s history within this figure to embody such coherence either. The search for “precedent” for the present humiliation of Anglicanism cannot therefore be one that has as its goal the composition of a blueprint for action; it can only aim at discerning what forms our confession might take within the giving over of our witness to God’s shaping judgment and mercy. In this light, let me offer two very different examples of humiliation – the “Nonjuring Church” of late 17th-century and early 18th-century England, and the church under the French Revolution. In each case, the “exalting” gifts of God follow diverse patterns.

Furthermore, in each the context for the church’s humiliation is one which still holds ties of genesis as well as effect within today’s environment of ecclesial disorder and dejection. We would be willfully ignorant if we refused to articulate the hopes that have fed our demise; if, that is, we refused to acknowledge that the liberative strategies that have pulled us down – in terms, for example, of the politics of race and gender and sexuality -- come from a well of human yearning that is deep, because deeply demanded, in a history for which the Church of Christ bears shameful responsibilities. The desire to escape religious violence and oppression; the search for freedom to orchestrate political and economic growth and alliance outside the constraints of exclusive religious demands; the inescapable practical demand that human welfare not be the slave to the political hypocrisy of ecclesial greed, compromise, and tyranny – these remain yearnings of today, however deformed and calcified, and they exist in continuity with a past the Church has already struggled through. So the two examples outlined below belong already to our lives, in ways that are perhaps more intimate than the many other examples one might have lifted up.

Yet in each of the two cases below, although one in a peaceful and insidious cultural violence, the other in an overt series of physical assault and destruction, the paradox of freedom’s demands upsetting the religious order by which human lust is restrained and transformed, was made clear. The Church’s complicity in evil was exposed and deflated by the very forces her own Gospel was called to overcome; and in such open ridicule and humiliation, the Gospel was given new life. God has done these things for our instruction even today. For perhaps these are not examples, after all; but broken crests upon a massive tide, encircling the world, in whose one current we too are caught.


The Nonjuring division of the late 17th and early 18th centuries in England represents one of the few precedents of ecclesial humiliation within Anglicanism itself, and in this light alone deserves our attention. Its outcome is instructive both as promise and warning for the current crisis in ECUSA, particularly in terms of the fate of “straight-ahead” theology that is the confessing Christian’s unreflected response.

The Nonjuring episode was brought on by the conflict between a Christian leadership within the Church of England committed to a straightforward expression of responsible “word-keeping” before God on the one hand and the ecclesial press to adapt to changing political and cultural permissions and goals on the other. When James II issued the 1688 Declaration of Indulgence (which probably sought the restoration of Roman Catholicism within the realm), seven bishops, led by Archbishop of Canterbury William Sancroft, refused to publish it in their dioceses. After withstanding a brief imprisonment and trial, their popular support effectively brought about James’ flight from England and the invitation to William of Orange to replace him as monarch. However, the same bishops, along with over 400 clergy, remained clear that their moral adherence to the Reformed religion of the State was also tied to their allegiance to the divinely ordained monarch – in this case, as they believed, still James, despite his failures and disobediences.

For this reason, even though they had steadfastly opposed James romanizing policies, Sancroft and his colleagues also refused to accept William as the rightful monarch of England in James’ place. They believed that their Oath of Allegiance to James was morally and religiously still valid, and they therefore withheld the Oath now demanded for Willaim (hence the name “nonjuring” or “non-swearing”). Within two years the seven bishops (joined by two others and still including Sancroft) along with the hundreds of nonjuring clergy had been deprived of their ecclesial livings within the parochial and diocesan structures of the Church of England. The fact that this wholescale purging of bishops and pastors took place “uncanonically”, without the legal permission of the church’s own councils, represented a complete capitulation of ecclesial existence, with the open connivance of her leaders, to the demands of state.

The Nonjurors based their actions on the integrity of their oath – their word before God – and the Oath itself upon a deeply religious understanding of the Divine Right of the Monarch, a theological position that, although now bemusedly discredited, had in different guises been at the center of Anglican ecclesiology and Scriptural interpretation since the 16th-century (enshrined e.g. in the Elizabethan Homilies). The Nonjuring response in the face of government (and Church establishment) leadership demands for conformance to a religious commitment they now judged immoral and heretical, because it voided a previously sacred oath, was simply to refuse go along, to accept the ecclesiastical consequences, and to continue in their personal and corporate Christian witness as best they could, without however (at least initially) attempting to overturn the Establishment itself.

Many of the Nonjuring clergy and bishops, having been “fired”, were forced into immediate penury; they survived only barely and through the charity of friends and colleagues (much as the older ones had survived during the Commonwealth). New congregations of Nonjuring laity were formed here and there, but without gathering a dynamic following. In 1694, several new Nonjuring bishops were secretly consecrated, something that perpetuated the movement but that also (along with other actions) propelled it into a formal schism until 1804. By this point, many had either returned to the Church of England’s communion, or simply died out. Indeed, already by the 1720’s, with the new Hanoverian dynasty well in place, the debates within Convocation silenced by the government’s suspension of its business gatherings, and a division within the Nonjuring movement itself over Prayer Book usage sapping its leadership energies, the “confessing” character of the Nonjuring Christians in England was a spent force.

Spent or not, the power of the Nonjurng confession was considerable as a response to the Church of England’s unraveling witness in the face of political chaos. First of all, the Nonjurors upheld the authority, not of conscience, but of the demands of God over those who commit themselves in His name to the divine ordering of the Church (at least as they perceived it). This has proved to be a still-disturbing testimony to the moral grandeur of faithfulness to one’s sworn responsibilities, accountable to God, over personal and political expedience, however prudent the latter may seem. “I am not ashamed” to do what I have sworn to do.

Secondly, the response of the Nonjurors was one wholly consistent with the forms of these responsibilities themselves and of the order they had sworn to embody. Thus, there was an astonishing coherence between principle and action, that gave rise to the stark demands of non-resistance and passive obedience – virtues lived before the divinely ordained monarch – even in the face of the unjust treatment meted out to the dissenters. The integrity that informed the shape of “nonjuring” – the acceptance of deprivation, the avoidance (initially) of setting up structures of opposition, the tenor of quiet disengagement from what was immoral and dishonest -- was one of its most distinctive features.

Thirdly, Nonjuring bishops and clergy committed themselves to the care of their flock, but in ways that demanded purity of order only as far as possible. That is, they presented themselves as examples of confessing rigor, yet exercised prudence where it came to the pastoral constraints of those placed in their care, trusting that God would order what they did not have in their moral power to invent. It was mainly later in the movement’s history that scrupulosity was preached as a popular Gospel, and it only fed into the sectarian tributaries of Nonjuring dissipation.

Fourthly, the confessing focus of personal testimony fueled a brightly burning flame of holy witness on the part especially of the movement’s leadership, one that shone in sharp and convicting contrast to the theological permissiveness that was part of the Latitudinarian program of the day. Many (although by no means most) of the leaders of “Juring” clergy -- people like Burnet and later Tillotson, who dared to take Sancroft’s place at Canterbury – were individuals of extreme moral probity and effort. Yet their often flaccid religious purposes only encouraged the spread of wide-ranging deistic and atheistical attitudes, and it came as no surprise that the wider the reach of religious “toleration” stretched through the Whig policies, the less frequented were the churches of all denominations. Treating the populace to a freedom for all faiths, they discovered that competition killed. The holy living of the Nonjurors, on the other hand, informed by a substantive theology of Christian truth, produced spurs to Christian conversion that were influential for some time (cf. William Law’s influence on Wesley, or the repeatedly used Christian apologies of Charles Leslie).

Indeed, fifthly, the Nonjurors renewed in the eyes of the English Church, through their lives, the divine integrity of the “confessing vocation” itself, and sowed one of the few fields that provided a consistent harvest of sanctified example for mission and Christian service for over a hundred years following. To be an Anglican “saint” was no longer, in the public eye, an oxymoron.

Sixthly, the Nonjuring witness was suffused with and motivated by an abiding hope, coupled with a deep repentance, that unveiled for many the priority of God’s ordering Providence within the life of the Church, over and against the plotting and manipulation of ecclesial existence that had long infected the English church (and that today has been translated into the religiously vacant management strategies of contemporary leaders). By giving themselves over, in a concrete way, to the unforced outcomes of events, they embodied within themselves their own accepted humiliation, and the primary promises of divine resurrection in a way that was “of another kind” than the “bodies” through which their church was being beaten down.

Finally, the willingness to consider, to reflect, to discern, and to articulate this in writing – all elements made possible only by their submission to the extension of time through hope -- offered to the Church the most useful legacy of their witness. Ken, Dodwell, Brett, Leslie, Law and others, although rarely read today, informed the consciences, theological skills, and moral ballast of many of the great churchmen England was still able to produce, from Berkeley, to Wesley, to the Oxford renewal.

On the other side of the balance, it is worth noting the difficulties caused by the very virtues of the Nonjurors’ steady disinclination towards active resistance. Their careful disengagement from efforts to manipulate a change in the establishment’s policies of orthodox discipline created a vacuum of direction and authority within their own internal relations. This lack of interest in positive self-ordering in turn transformed itself, if only in terms of group dynamics, into growing pressures for organizing new structures, whose only fuel now derived from an identity of resented opposition. The acquiescence to the consecration of new bishops, done in careful concert with the exiled court of the James, demonstrates how an open hope, because unaccompanied by efforts at organized formation and oversight, could be remade into a political strategy, which itself demanded the structures of a separate church.

Thus, a formal “schism” came into being, almost despite itself and certainly in contradiction to the original principles of the Nonjuring leaders. The later writers of the movement, following theologians like Hickes, often tended towards a stridency of condemnation that eventually, as the political hopes of the Jacobites dissolved, took on the rhetorical and polemical characteristics of sectarianism. It is not surprising that many Nonjurors, in this climate, quietly slipped back into the fold of the Church of England.

It was a church, however, that had already been denuded of some of its finest leaders, that is, precisely of those Nonjurors who had previously left it. And as a result, it was a church now theologically diluted and spiritually decimated in the face of the creeping and in places rampant secularism of the age. As J.W.C. Wand has written, the original Nonjurors were “the very cream of the ministry at that time”. Yet, “it is possible that their humility disguised from them the fact that in satisfying their own conscience they might still be doing harm to the church… isolating the men of strongest Church principles and allowing them to withdraw from the Church of the country [thereby] laying the whole field open for William’s scheme of latitudinarian comprehension” (The High Church Schism [London: Faith Press, 1951], p. 12).

Despite the fact that Nonjuring writers like Charles Leslie were effective apologists for orthodoxy, they carried on their battle from outside the established church, and therefore never had the social credibility with, not to mention the rhetorical arena within which, to influence those whose hold on cultural sensibilities might most critically have been touched by their arguments. Further, the scandal of actively fomenting schism itself simply undercut the claims to ecclesial integrity Nonjurors had originally defended. “It was difficult to maintain the traditional doctrine of the ministry in the face of attacks from Deists and Latitudinarians while those who stood most strongly for that doctrine were consecrating bishops without a see and without a single assistant at the imposition of hands” (Wand, p. 82).

In sum, the humiliation of the Church proved for the Nonjurors to be a tide they were unable – as much as anyone in their day or ever – to resist, and whose debasing effects they could not escape anymore than could the time-servers of the establishment. The very strategies of such attempted resistance, when once articulated and carefully pursued -- even in the form of suffering and orchestrated loss of power -- themselves proved impotent and degrading of faith, leading to schism and to bitterness. This illustrates a tremendously important truth regarding God’s self-humbling work and its transposition into saving judgment: humiliation is not a selective force; it envelopes the faithful and the unfaithful together, even as its healing takes on different forms for each.

And only out of this subsuming act of divine degradation, which left the Nonjurors in some sense as tainted as their foes, did the clarity of their “straight-ahead” responses bear sanctified fruit. Saintly Thomas Ken, “accepting a retirement into insignificance” as one writer put it, strangely remains one of the most quoted poets in the Church’s acts of adoration: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, Praise Him all creatures here below, Praise Him above ye heavenly Host, Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”, a doxology that came from his heart and pen, and a paradox of history that only God could have construed for His glory.

The Refractory Church of the French Revolution

A hundred years after the Nonjuring witness first emerged, another, more pointed and drastically more tragic confrontation between the parties of faith and her enemies bound in mutual humiliation took place in France. We all know enough about the French Revolution to realize its ultimate hostility towards Christianity. But the actual life of the Christian Church within the course of this assault is less familiar, despite the fact that its forms set the course and defined the players for much of Continental Europe’s ecclesial existence since. And while the Revolutionary ideology is preeminently visible as an anti-Christian attitude, in fact its textured genesis and ongoing character are deeply informed by a host of modern hopes whose powers still exert themselves, even through the Christian institutions it sought first to co-opt and then to destroy. They are hopes not without ties to the Latitudinarian dreams of the earlier Revolution of late 17th century England. Indeed, the connection between the two clearly indicates how difficult it is simply to extricate the Christian Gospel from the legitimate yearnings for religious freedom, however difficult it may be to turn such longings aside from gnawing away the core of the Gospel itself. Over and over again, divine humiliation resolves the religious contradictions of human political failure.

The central facts regarding the Church during the French Revolution are simple in their legal referents, but very messy in their lived details. On July 12, 1790, the Constituent Assembly of the Revolution voted in the so-called Civil Constitution of the Clergy. This act, among other elements, sought to reorganize the French Catholic Church along new diocesan lines which conformed to the new “departments” of the reorganized state, simplified the structure of the hierarchy, made clergy paid civil servants of the state, and made episcopal appointment subject to civic election. Although the Pope was still offered recognition as doctrinal “head” of the Church, all practical, disciplinary, and pastoral authority was transferred to the French government. Four months later, a formal Oath of allegiance to the new Constitution was imposed on all clergy. During this first year, the new Constitutional Church jockeyed for position, both in parishes and in dioceses, with priests and bishops who refused to accept the Constitution or take the Oath . The dissenters were known as “refractories”, and the Church still loyal to the Roman allegiance known as the “Refractory Church”.

In 1791, when Pope Pius VI finally condemned both the Constitution and the Oath in an official Brief, the struggle between Constitutionals and Refractories became heated and rose to a level of extreme and often brutal violence, with the Constitutionals backed by State arms, and the Refractories upheld, if at all, by local popular resistance. By 1793, however, the Revolution had moved into its Jacobin phase: Christianity itself was increasingly seen as an enemy of freedom, and new forms of deistic religion were being promoted by the State, to the detriment of both Constitutional and Refractory churches together. At this time many of the Constitutional clergy themselves left the church and joined in promoting the new “faith”. In the Terror that followed, priests and bishops from both groups perished.

With the fall of Robespierre and his party in mid-1794, a period of relatively secure religious toleration was imposed. The Constitutional Church withered without government support, so that when, in 1801 Napolean and Pius VII established a new Concordat between the French State and the Roman Church, making the latter the official religion of France once again, the shell of the Revolutionary Church was easily discarded. Although the Concordat was subsequently modified in a way that placed new state controls over the Church’s life, Roman Catholicism remained the only recognized “catholic” religion in France.

These simple dates and facts, however, mask the intricate complexity of lived experience within the Church(es) of this period. In effect, two “catholic” churches existed side by side for ten years in France, each considering the other “schismatic” and more than that, seeing the other as dangerous to the physical and spiritual safety not only of its members but of the citizenry at large. In addition, there was a wide area of blurred commitment between the two groups, not only among clergy but among laity. This was true especially in the early years of the Revolution. Both these realities are useful in discerning several important dynamics at work in the process of ecclesial humiliation such as was imposed upon Christian France at this time.

First of all, the Constituent Assembly’s legislative imposition of a new form for the church – a kind of singular ecclesial reconstruction -- obscures the fact that there had already been a long and gradual movement, among many clergy and even some bishops, in search of just some of the elements the new Civil Constitution embodied: lay engagement, accountability, commitment to the principles of justice as a part of the Church’s economic and political existence, openness to new learning, and so on. Although the Constitution was greeted with hostility by most of the bishops from the start, this was hardly true for the parish clergy, nor for the people. For years the French Church had been a place where “Gallican” ideals (based on the principles of “national” sovereignty within the church, analogous to certain “Anglican” principles”) were rampant within highly orthodox and prominent Catholic circles (e.g. Bp. Bossuet) as well as more suspect groups (the Jansenists). A certain kind of reformiong “primitivist” outlook prevailed in these quarters, carried through to the end of the 18th-century and governed by the yearning to “restore the Church” to her early simplicity and organization. By the time of the Revolution, these attitudes were part and parcel of broad swaths of the French Church, and the Civil Constitution, in many ways, seemed simply to bring them to a kind of political fruition, to the delight of many.

The fault-lines that began to appear with the Constitution’s promulgation and then with the imposition of the Oath, then, had less to do initially with “ideas” or “theology”, than with a dawning sense that the Church herself had been literally taken over by secular forces, both politically and ideologically: the Assembly, after all, had made the decision, and had oddly enough thrown the church’s governance over to citizens at large, many of whom were obviously neither Catholic nor even Christian. The appearance of “two churches” was therefore a gradual reality. Clergy and people were uncertain of the meaning and implications of the Constitution for some time, and wavered between their moral and political commitments, on the one hand, and the sense that the Church they had known was actually under structural assault. There were regional differences, of course: in some areas up to half or more of the local clergy were willing to take the Oath. In those regions where the majority of the clergy refused it, some were forced out of their cures by authorities and replaced with “constitutional clergy”; others were simply left in place, supported by their people, and deemed relatively unproblematic in the face of larger challenges to the government. Parallels with contemporary splits within single Anglican churches are apparent here.

Among the “jurors” – the new Constitutional clergy – there were many who were upholding their long-held views. But there were also many who saw this as the opening to new career advancements, middle-aged men whose sense of being trapped in rural parishes was suddenly overturned by the prospect of election – with local government support – to positions they had never dreamed accessible. Finally, there were those who simply understood that taking the Oath was their only means of maintaining their positions – “il faut vivre” (one must live), as one aristocratic clergyman confessed to his astonished friends on taking the Oath. For some time, even into the Terror, the “real” motives for many Constitutional clergy were uncertain, a matter that caused confusion in their confrontation with refractory clergy, and finally made them suspect to the radical secularizers when they let loose their fury on clergy of all brands.

Things changed dramatically, in any case, when the Pope declared the Constitution heretical in 1791. The waverers, as well as many of the self-servers, quickly declared their allegiance to Rome; many constitutional clergy retracted their oaths, and the battle of the “two churches” was officially launched. The question of the “true nature” of the Church was now at the center of debate (where such debate was possible). While the issue was “discipline” less than “doctrine” or “liturgy”, to be sure, discipline was seen by the Refractories as but an element – visible and critical -- of a larger cultural relaxation of commitment to the “Church Universal” and the communion of saints. If Gallicanism had a reason, it was now seen to be one that must be constrained by the larger Church’s demands of common order and mutual commitment, and as being possibly dangerous from the start in its potential for abuse.

As time wore on, and the spectacle of Constitutional clergy marrying and divorcing and marrying again, or of abandoning parish work in favor of political agitation, gained a shocking profile, it became obvious to many that the cult of the “primitive” vaunted by the jurors was turning out to be a means of shedding Christianity bit by bit and altogether itself in favor of a number of abstract ideals closer to political ideology than to historical theology. From the point of view of the Refractories, this was a clear case where “forms of life” had been shown to be absolutely necessary to the maintenance of faith itself. This became obvious after 1793 when the government’s assault on Christianity itself turned against the Constitutional Church, even while some of its fiercest and bloodiest proponents were lapsed Constitutional clergy.

Yet although the lines of confrontation and difference became clearer and clearer, it was also immediately apparent that the larger Church – Rome and the faithful Roman Catholic leaders who were friends of the French Church -- was powerless in the process of resistance. In the three years leading up to the Terror, despite a wide regional diversity, thousands of priests were thrown out of parishes, hounded into penury, imprisoned or simply fled. By 1793, with the coming of harsher measures, it is estimated that about 40% of the French clergy – 30,000 to 40,000 – had been forced to leave France. Murders, killings, and executions began to spread, with estimates varying wildly as to the numbers of clergy and religious put to death, but probably reaching into the several thousands (not to mention the over 200,000 killed in the various counter-revolutionary uprisings in e.g. the Vendée, which largely supported the Refractory Church). Some of these executions, done for instance by mass drownings, represented extremes of grotesque cruelty. By 1794 Christian worship itself was outlawed, and the Refractory Church became largely an “underground” reality. Early on, the nonjuring clergy understood that “they were on their own”. As even now.

And in this place of abandoned confession, a wide variety of postures was taken, not coordinated, few driven by a common set of practical ideals: from mass emigration, to opposition and deprivation, to imprisonment and death, to miraculous survival, clergy and their supporters struggled to work openly or in hiding, in any way they were able to tolerate according to health, money, local encouragement, temperament, and principle. Some distributed “refractory catechisms” (in polemical response to “constitutional catechisms”) pamphlets, and collections of devotions and sermons in order to sustain the flock. Others preached openly or celebrated the Mass in parishes where they were simply left alone by the authorities (very few by 1794). Others still moved about in stealth by night and day (one priest known as “March-à-terre” for his constant hiking from one place to the other), consistently informed by the fact that no long-term strategy existed, and there was little communication with the outside Church. Instead, there was only the hope of humiliated waiting and overcoming through divine resurrection. As one village priest named Marchais from the Vendée put it:

“Such is our lot in the present circumstances: we must resolve to be martyrs, either in fact or by inclination. I mean by that either in dying in anguish or living in tribulation. Thus are all things ordered now, and after what it has pleased God to sanction against us, it is impossible that we can escape one or the other fate, and we must either shed our own blood or live on in destitution” (in Nigel Aston, Religion and Revolution in France, 1780-1804 [Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2000], p. 242).

The horror of the Church’s survival, and its slim margins of perdurance is something worth pondering. The Constitutional Church, despite leaders of acknowledged integrity like Bishop Henri Grégoire, simply disappeared; whereas the Refractory Church of Roman Catholicism remained, but barely. As Aston (whose work is the best summary of recent research) remarks, given the persecution, abandonment of faith by many, outlawing of Catholicism, and the State imposition of an alternative “Religion of Reason”, “the public practice of Catholicism ceased, to such an extent that by the spring of 1794, it has been estimated, only about 150 of the 40,000 pre-1798 parishes in the whole country were openly celebrating mass” (p. 215). By and large, the final resisters were young, educated, missionary-minded priests, urban as well as rural, whose faith and resilience (physically and intellectually) allowed for their perseverance in the face of enormous odds. Yet there were not many of these still standing when the cloud finally lifted.

And when the smoke had cleared from the wreckage, the larger Church’s reaction was both cautious and flexible. When Napoleon finally concluded his Concordat with Rome in 1801, the Pope (Pius VII) sought to recognize the challenges not only of the Revolution’s ending, but of its beginning. He demanded that all pre-Revolutionary bishops – many of whom had survived in exile – resign their sees in order to bring in a fresh leadership untainted by the original outrage of the reformers. Beyond these, the Refractories – those still in France and the many more thousand émigrés – were ready simply to repossess the empty churches (with much of their property still in the hands of the State, however). They had survived, if not flourished, but the survival itself left them as living tools for the Church’s replanting in France. The old clergy were re-installed. But the Pope also allowed for the reintroduction of many of the surviving Constitutional clergy as well (although they too were not numerous), looking to the side of their juring infidelities and permitting them to stand with their “confessing” brethren. The Church herself was in such dire and humiliated straits, needing and receiving a full re-creation, that the kinds of puritanical party lines of the past were no longer useful in sustaining her, and the beaten were seen, to some extent, as having become one, through having come through the furnace “together”. It proved an odd and probably wise conjunction of forgiveness and (enforced) political prudence. Napoleon quickly imposed an interpretation on the Concordat that in fact carried with it many of the impediments the Civil Constitution of the Clergy had demanded at the beginning; and the Pope, this time acquiescing, and in fact submitting for awhile even to the emperor’s imprisoning, simply waited for the tyrant’s death. It was patience soon rewarded.

No religious person gazing at this sight could deny the clarity of God’s work in it, precisely because of the scattered remains of human failure laying about it. Chateaubriand, in his Mémoires, spoke of the Church’s halting resurrection in terms of a quaking emergence from the Catacombs, at once astonishingly beautiful and ghastly. De Maistre saw the entire episode as the revelatory philosophical basis for a historical theory about sacrifice, in which time and the politics of nations and peoples are understood as God’s crucible for human purgation, embodied in Christ and now shared in the grand Sacrifice of His Church – the spilling of blood both the crime and the means by which judgment’s blood, drawn from the innocent, becomes the covering of sin (discussed in his 1821 Soirées de S.-Pétersbourg). It was a theory few political scientists could affirm, yet one about which the sober Christian historian remains unsettlingly perplexed, and to which the Christian disciple rests intractably bound.

The experience of the French Church in the Revolution, finally, brings into profile a number of consistent elements within ecclesial humiliation that still inform our conflicted Christian life today. First the nature of conflict is interior to the church and to the inquiries of faith itself – the motives for reform and the ideals of the Revolution were those, initially, of Constitutional and Refractory together in many cases. We should beware of assuming a clarity of difference as an essential element of Christian life (and this wariness should beget both self-examination and charity). But once emergent, this difference becomes inescapable and engorges the whole of life, of mission, and of prayer. The blurred lines of origin and motive bring a common judgment to us all; but they also demand a particular confession once acknowledged, from which we dare not step down.

Secondly, the impotence of the Church to enforce a resolution is a mark of divine humiliation from the start. The whole process in France was left within the weak hands of the individual confessors – laity as much as clergy – whose skills were constricted, whose faith was varied, whose hopes were often unfocused. St. Paul’s admission that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” is both a prelude to his catalogue of “death’s work” in his “body”, as well as the historical ground upon which the testimony can be made that “transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7ff.). No one should imagine that help might come from Egypt, from Zealots in our midst, from leaders of acute political judgment and power ready to bring their gifts to bear on behalf of the oppressed and beleaguered. The vessels are ours alone; and they will break, though without the loss of hope.

Thirdly, the divine character of this reality, as a gift that is, is demonstrated through the impossibility of strategic organization proving useful or doable. Among the confessing Refractories, faithful prudence coexisted with and often struggled against daring sacrifice – emigration and martyrdom, secrecy and extravagant display, quiet prayer and theological polemic, perseverant presence and catechetical formation, all represented together the uncoordinated character that marked the unheralded and unplanned matrix of divine grace.

Fourthly, the fruit of a few, strong, well-formed, and young was given as a final stay against the Church’s annihilation. This cannot be overlooked or granted as a coincidence. And in the face of the present judgment God brings upon us, we cannot help but cry out for mercy given our acquiescence over years to the graying of the clergy and the evacuating of their divine knowledge. Whether coordinated or not, the humiliated church can and must form the young within its midst, and grant them the wisdom of the Church’s still unsquandered truths and gifts.

Fifthly, we should note the strange compromises of God’s renewals; that is, how when the Terror lifted, and a respite of unoppressed and exhausted struggle gained, and finally Napoleon grudgingly permitted the Roman Church again to live, the Pope went forward quietly, even openly permitting aspects of the rejected Revolution’s secular claims over the church, at least for a moment. These compromises, to be sure, proved to be tactics for the times, for time itself, a kind of willingness to let the Providence that had “torn” now take up the very rods of its discomfiting to do its “healing” and to achieve the final overturning of those instruments of His wrath.

Finally, let us consider the divine irony and turning inside-out of the Church that God performed upon a recalcitrant people in France, by acknowledging the strange character of post-Revolutionary French Catholicism: for here emerged a church in which, in theology and devotion, we see the triumph of “grace” in an institution that had raged against its Augustinian (and evangelical!) foundations and promises for two centuries. We see, that is, a church that had officially squeezed out the Dominicans and Jansenists from its hierarchy of influence only now, after its near-destruction, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, being transformed into an ecclesial culture in which “grace” becomes the dominating theme of revival itself (the socio-cultural analysis of the modern French church is rightly illuminated by the icon of someone like George Bernanos and the literature and spirituality of humiliated Jansenism that is represents). A humbled church to this day, filled with saints, in a desiccated culture, French Catholicism still “bears the marks of Jesus on its body” (Gal. 6:17). True hope is fulfilled!

The historical failures of Anglican exceptionalism

Nonjurors and Refractories – among others! -- unveil the truth about divine humiliation, even as it moves into our midst. Purity was no guarantee and granted no rewards; good motives did not preserve moral outcomes; organization paradoxically led to schism, while confused confession maintained the marks of humbled flesh, “useful” to resurrection; faithful and simple labor, straight-ahead, done in the face of persecution and rejection, is seed; holiness and patience is a flame; teaching and catechizing is a gift; where no one triumphs, God reigns.

But through all this, the humiliation of the Church moves to its end without exceptions. It gathers up humankind, and works through this or that body of the church as its chooses. And when its grip becomes the stuff of time, it manifests itself, not as a selective or a partial work, but as a death and resurrection. Within this frame, who will orchestrate its acts and promises?

The humiliation of Anglicanism, in this church or another, in ECUSA or in Canada, in England or Africa, or in all of it together as it suffers each and every portion of its communion, can hardly be parsed, then, in terms of discrete levels of debasing – brought down as low as this, but no lower; touching this branch but leaving all the others fully leafed; destroying the post-1976 or 1979 church, but sparing all that came before or looks before; pruning theological excesses and encouraging ecclesial virtues here and there, and only thereby making us all better Anglicans; heartening the intelligent and menacing the stupid. For the Temple tumbles without “one stone left upon the other”; and it rises as a whole – no bones broken. Anglicanism’s humiliation is, in its root derivation, the human race’s; it cannot represent some divine strategy to protect an exceptional church from exceptionally bad people.

The Anglican “exceptionalists” must come to see this fact, for the fact will come upon them, the last ones left, sooner or later, like a “wind across a wilderness” (Job 2:19). Let me list some of these false attitudes, to be left behind in our day.

The theological exceptionalists, in the face of humiliation, call for “regrouping”. Whether on the left or right of the spectrum, they claim some theological sensibility that we can rally around and lift as standard or hold as in a fort: the “comprehenders”, purportedly hearkening to Elizabethan sensibilities, bringing together all points of view in a synthesizing charity of truth; the reasoners, for whom the questions ---- of science, social science, psychology and parapsychology – triumph over every answer; the reformers, with their dour logics and preaching tabs; the catholics, for whom universality excludes all but the presently primitive; the Anglican Luddites, certain of the date when all went wrong (so long ago or was it just yesterday). Of course, the Catholics, Puritans and Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Nonjurors, Methodists, and more have always been ready to debate this claim to reasoned comprehension or to embedded theological particularity! Time’s testing disproves it all, as the vagaries of Anglican dissent and conflict, disagreement and contestation put the lie to some cohesive vision – though not to the truth, which may well be hidden in the pile of debate! -- by which those inside the lines can escape the mountains being brought low.

The ecclesiological exceptionalists, viewing the disarray of the church’s teaching, instead of weeping, call us to revel in the glorious confusion of tongues. The straddlers, limping always between two views (but in a dance!); the communers, intoxicated always by the mixtures; the bridgers, for whom bringing together the irreconcilable is to play with the divine; the muddlers, the populists and collegialists. No Popes, no Curias or authoritative councils, no moral necessities to intervene, no shunnings or decisive chagrins. “We have a special way of being Church”, they assure us, “which the Gentiles do not understand”, even while their hopes are daily disproven by decline, debilitation, and schism. The great Church of Diversity diminishes itself to beleaguered singularity.

The sociological exceptionalists, finally, perceive an opportunity in being battered. Reach out!, they call. We are the church of the those who “think”, a church of outcasts, a church of the rich, a church of the marginalized, a church ready for whatever point excludes the others, but finds its special home here among the sole survivors of a self – whichever one it is – that cannot get along with others. Our appeal is special, in any case, and we must be willing to live with such distinction. All these justifications, however, are each disproven simply by an entrusted Gospel that cannot abide the scandal of such self-indulgence thrown, like a stumbling stone, before the unwashed poor, before “all humankind”.

Anti-exceptionalism and the Good Confession

“‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus’” (Acts 2:37f.), “buried with him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). In this way, we are called to recognize the failures of these exceptionalist visions of the self, called to see one’s own similarities, complicities, and genealogies with all who have been humbled for their boasting, called, that is, to be readied for life. As one church among many, Anglicanism is at best an imperfect analogy to the details of another’s humiliation – of North Africa’s and Asia Minor’s, of China’s and Japan’s, of Russia’s and France’s, each inclusive of a breadth of ecclesial diversity within themselves, each governed by its own polity and marked by its own trail of inadequate perception and preparation.

But that is just the point. Anglicanism, of yesterday or of today, is no “model” of anything. It is simply a “figure”, a “living-out” of the given, that is, of the vocation, purely, to be who one is created to become in the following of Jesus here. And “from here”, from this overwhelmed locale of Episcopalianism in America or in anyplace, “testimony” is given by those willing to open their mouth in wonder and confession, be “bound and carried where they do not wish to go” (John 21:18). It is the testimony that gives “account for the hope that is in us” (1 Peter 3:15), the “reminder” of the “Gospel for which we” and all those before us who “suffer, bound in fetters” by the world, by its people, and by its times (2 Tim. 8f.) Others will do what they must do to be faithful where they are. Call us what you will; but we are here.

The “good confession” that Jesus made, standing before Pilate, we therefore make with Him (1 Tim. 12f.), as we stand in this place, visible before the eyes of all, as we are brought into the square. “You have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecution, my sufferings” (2 Tim 3:10ff.). We are here to be seen in all our humiliation. And here, we speak.

Straight-ahead, we do our work: we tend the sheep entrusted to our care; we share God’s word in Christ with all who have ears; we teach; we give our bodies to the persecutor, offering the pattern of a “godly life” for the formation of others. We pray with the Church on behalf even of the whole wide world (1 Tim. 2:1ff.).

“I charge you with love, that comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere fatih” (1 Tim. 1:5). “Follow the pattern of sound words heard from me in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus and guard the truth entrusted to you” (2 Tim 1:13f.). “Preach the word, convince, rebuke, exhort, unfailing in patience and in teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). “Be steady, endure suffering, work as an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5).

What are we to do? “The saying is sure: ‘If we have died with him, we shall also live with him. If we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself’” (2 Tim. 2:11ff.).

What are we to do? We can leave: out of exhaustion, out of a sense of failure, out of a sense even of stewardship for our beleaguered internal and pastoral resources. But who will show our people what it is to “follow Christ” just where they are called? That is, who will show them what it means to “die and be raised”?

From the question, “What are we to do?”, we are given by God another question: “Where are we?” In a garden; in a Praetorium; on a hill; in a tomb. Dust. Humiliated. The object of grace, and only grace. This is what we must exhibit, we too, “sentenced to death”: a “spectacle” before the “world, before angels, and before men” (1 Cor. 4:9). “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest” (Acts 10:39f.). Where are we? We are here to be seen.


Some Further Reading

Aston, Nigel, Religion and Revolution in France, 1780-1804 (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2000)

Christophe, Paul, 1789, Les Prêtres dans la Révolution (Paris: Les Éditions Ourvrières, 1986)

Kennedy, Emmet, A Cultural History of the French Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989)

Phillips, C.S., The Church in France, 1789-1848: A Study in Revival (New York: Russell & Russell, 1966 [orig. 1929])

Strenski, Ivan, Contesting Sacrifice: Religion, Nationalism, and Social Thought in France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002

Tackett, Timothy, Religion, Revolution, and Regional Culture in Eighteenth-

Century France: The Ecclesiastical Oath of 1791 (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

Gorodetzky, Nadejda, The Humiliated Christ in Modern Russian Thought (London: SPCK, 1938).

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